The verb "to bowdlerize" is an eponym. That is, it derives from the name of a person.

Pronunciation differs on this one. The Oxford English Dictionary gives ow the sound it has in cow; Merriam-Webster gives ow a long o sound.

bowd-ler-ize: verb. to remove material that is considered improper or offensive from (a text or account), esp. with the result that it becomes weaker or less effective

The verb “to bowdlerize” is an eponym. That is, it derives from the name of a person.

The person in this case is Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), an educated

Bowdlers Family Shakespeare (Source:
Bowdler’s Family Shakespeare (Source:

Englishman of independent means who wished to protect readers, chiefly women and children, from what he considered improper language and content in literary works. He edited the “bad stuff” out of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His sister Harriet took the axe to the works of Shakespeare. Her expurgated work had to be published under her brother’s name because a respectable Victorian woman could not afford to admit that she understood which bits were improper.

Lest you imagine that such obnoxious meddling with literature belongs to the hypocritical and controlling mentality of previous centuries, be aware that it is alive and well in the year 2011. A publisher called NewSouth Books is publishing a bowdlerized edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.The word “nigger” is being replaced with the word “slave.” Never mind that the two words are not and never have been synonymous. Never mind that Twain uses the word for deliberate and cumulative effect. Never mind that anyone who reads Huckleberry Finn with any degree of understanding comes to hate the word because, like Huck, they learn to love and respect Jim, who is a finer human being than most of the white men in the story, including Huck’s worthless father. The text must be changed to suit modern sensibilities.

George Orwell saw this coming:

By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be…. The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness. —1984

Broadcasters Bowdlerize Too

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5 Responses

  1. It also happens every Sunday, when longstanding hymns are rewritten in order to eliminate the “offensive” use of “he”, “him” or “man”. I don’t watch bowdlerized movies, I don’t read bowdlerized books and I don’t sing bowdlerized hymns.

  2. It IS the same as rolling a boulder of something! Dammit! I would rather be called crass and unladylike or any other adjective than to have the impact of someones literary genius picked apart and squelched. Free speech my a**!

    Translation: I am quite opposed to tampering with literature.

    There. Ladylike. Pfff!

  3. This is a bit of information I didn’t know. Thanks for the enlightenment. I always thought it meant to roll a boulder over something—in spite of the spelling.I still like to imagine the word with that connotation, so will continue to pronounce it with the O sound.

    You are “right on” with the Huck Finn comment.

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